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UNDERNEWS

Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of ten of America's presidencies and who has edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review, which has been on the web since 1995, is now published from Freeport, Maine. We get over 5 million article visits a year. See prorev.com for full contents of our site

March 20, 2010

STORES SPYING ON CUSTOMERS' BUYING HABITS

NY TIMES - The curvy mannequin piqued the interest of a couple of lanky teenage boys. Little did they know that as they groped its tight maroon shirt in the clothing store that day, video cameras were rolling.

At a mall, a father emerged from a store dragging his unruly young son by the scruff of the neck, as if he were the family cat. The man had no idea his parenting skills were being immortalized.

At an office supply store, a mother decided to get an item from a high shelf by balancing her small child on her shoulders, unaware that she, too, was being recorded.

These scenes may seem like random shopping bloopers, but they are meaningful to stores that are striving to engineer a better experience for the consumer, and ultimately, higher sales for themselves. Such clips, retailers say, can help them find solutions to problems in their stores - by installing seating and activity areas to mollify children, for instance, or by lowering shelves so merchandise is within easy reach.

Privacy advocates, though, are troubled by the array of video cameras, motion detectors and other sensors monitoring the nation's shopping aisles.

Many stores and the consultants they hire are using the gear not to catch shoplifters but to analyze and to manipulate consumer behavior. And while taping shoppers is legal, critics say it is unethical to observe people as if they were lab rats. They are concerned that the practices will lead to an even greater invasion of privacy, particularly facial recognition technology, which is already in the early stages of deployment.

Companies that employ this technology say it is used strictly to determine characteristics like age and gender, which help them discover how different people respond to various products. But privacy advocates fear that as the technology becomes more sophisticated, it will eventually cross the line and be used to identify individual consumers and gather more detailed information on them.


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